- John Lennon – double-tracked lead vocals, piano
- Paul McCartney – backing vocals, piano, bass and acoustic guitar, harpsichord
- George Harrison – backing vocals, lead and acoustic guitar, harmonium
- Ringo Starr – drums, tambourine
Real Love is one of two John Lennon songs "recovered" after his death from previous demos and takes and re-recorded by the other three members of the group in 1995. With Free as a Bird, it was released as a single in 1996 and was used as the first song on the collection Anthology 2. In this sense, Real Love was the last Beatles song, and the last top 40 hit of the Beatles in the US. It went to number 4 in the UK and to number 11 in the US, and went to gold more quickly than any other Beatles single.
Real Love started out as part of a theatrical work dubbed The Ballad of John and Yoko. In 1977 Lennon recorded a demo at home with a small tape machine. A different version of the same work evolved under the name Real Life, and that approach was recorded in six takes in the period 1979-80. Afterwards, it was abandoned, ultimately to be combined with fragments of Baby Make Love to You, a separate Lennon demo. It also appeared in a 1988 documentary called Imagine: John Lennon and on three other albums of Lennon's songs (Acoustic (2004); John Lennon Anthology (1998); Working Class Hero: The Definitive Lennon).
In 1994 Yoko Ono delivered the 1977 home recording of Real Love to Paul McCartney, with permission to develop it into a record, if possible. (See the discussion of Free as a Bird for a description of this event.)
Lennon's lyrics seem to convey a message that the way to stay grounded in the real world is to connect with someone in love. Love is the cure for loneliness. Mark Hertsgaard said in a review that the John Lennon of Real Love was a "hopeful but frightened man less concerned with screaming at life than surviving it." The tune is in E, and uses mainly the notes of the pentatonic scale. The intro is just four measures on the celeste, with eight measures each for the verse (which covers an octave) and the chorus (which covers an octave and a half). The last for measures of the chorus are repeated seven times and faded for the outro.
Real Love was more nearly finished than Free as a Bird; that is, no musical or lyrical elements were missing. But Lennon's recording was of poor quality, with 60 cycle hum, clicks and tape hiss. In addition, Lennon did not keep strict time in the song, as it was merely a demo. The co-producer (Jeff Lynne from the Electric Light Orchestra) worked with engineers in his Hollywood studio to clean up the tape and smooth out the timing. This took a week or more of work. Then the Beatles got together in Paul's home studio in Sussex. Geoff Emerick returned as sound engineer. Added to the guitars and drums were an electronic harpsichord and a harmonium.
It was emotionally tricky for the three surviving Beatles and their long-time audio engineer to produce this last Beatles record. Ringo said that it "didn't feel contrived at all, it felt very natural and it was a lot of fun, but emotional too at times." Paul said, "We just pretended that John had gone on holiday or out for tea and had left us the tape to play with. That was the only way we could deal with it."
Real Love was heard publicly for the first time on November 20. 1995 with the ABC network's broadcast of the second edition of The Beatles Anthology. The single was released on March 4 of the following year in the UK and US. A controversy erupted in the UK when BBC's Radio 1 refused to play the song. Angry fans, members of Parliament and Paul McCartney himself took to print to upbraid the stodgy radio execs for what was considered idiocy and censorship. Paul wrote: "It's very heartening to know that, while the kindergarten kings of Radio 1 may think The Beatles are too old to come out to play, a lot of younger British bands don't seem to share that view." Real Love was accompanied by a video of the three surviving band members making the Sussex recording, together with archival footage.
Harrison was not totally happy with how Real Love came out, and when the prospect arose for converting a third Lennon demo tape into a Beatles song (Now and Then), he declined to participate.